In walking away from organized religion and Jewish Orthodoxy, I almost expected the abandonment that I faced with relatives after I filtered Christianity honestly through my sense of reason and justice and found it wanting. Most people--with very few exceptions--are unable to honestly take an objective stance and consider the beliefs they hold dear, invest vast amounts of money in, are emotionally attached to, and whose adherents make up their peer group. Free thought and honesty of opinion are unwelcome in most religions.
My process of new birth has been a long and winding one. Born to a fundamentalist preacher, I began to question the beliefs of my childhood in middle adulthood and left them entirely for Orthodox Judaism, which was, in the truest sense, reconciliation with the faith of my maternal ancestors. Yet, after a few years inside the ultrareligious world, I began to realize that the same problems that had driven me from the church were to be found here, which led me to finally allow myself to question the subject of religion in general and ultimately, the untouchable Holy Grail known as the Bible.
It saddens me that for centuries priests and rabbis have spent their entire lives inventing what they think are clever explanations to justify the cruelty and barbarity of the plain text of what man claims is God's opinion. It is much like an endeavor to convince the public that the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan is secretly a friend to the Jew, African American, and homosexual, whose words and actions are simply misconstrued, and only a tiny, select, and wealthy group who can attend a special school to learn these justifications is able to understand this "fact." If God wanted the world to know Him, we would never have to explain His opinions or tone down His capriciousness. It would be clear to all if He were just. The one single evidence for me that none of the man-made religious books is from the Creator is the insistence of the major ones with which we are familiar that its adherents shun their fellows. Even worse is the bigoted arrogance of believing that any group is genetically holy, superior, and favored by the Creator of innumerable worlds.
Our rabbis, bless their well-intentioned hearts, tell us that "All Jews have a place in the World to Come." No matter what a monster, jerk, or hateful, selfish criminal a Jew is, he/she is genetically worthy of eternal bliss. But most Gentiles have no such place unless they follow an inferior religious system that we ourselves invented--of which I never even heard and would bet my life that 99% of Gentiles haven't. By the standard of the Noahide system that we made up, Mother Theresa does not have such a place because she was an idolator. Walt Whitman is also condemned because this brilliant, sensitive man was a homosexual. But Pat Robertson, whose bigotry and prejudice has influenced millions, whose lavish lifestyle is funded by the poor and ignorant, has an assured place in the World to Come because he has violated none of the seven laws of Noah. He may believe in Jesus, but he bows to no "graven images."
Genetic holiness, an extra part to the soul, or innate superiority over others--in spite of one's personal behavior toward his fellow man--is a concept that has the number one thing on the alleged list of things God hates written all over it: "a proud look." How can Jews believe such a thing about themselves and then laugh at the injustice of vicarious atonement?
If we can see that dying for the sins of another accomplishes nothing, and merit must be earned through good deeds, why do we then make a mockery of logic and insist that all Jews have a place in the World to Come by a virtue that is similarly unmerited, unjustified, and unjust?
While we may take comfort in saying that we haven't had an Inquisition, nor Crusade, nor have we behaved as the Medieval church did, the truth is that the church got the idea from our Bible. Our Bible is responsible for every "witch" that was ever killed. We planted the vineyard and now we shrug and insist that we did not reap the harvest, but someone else came along and reaped it.
We would have done better to have not planted it.
We can quote a thousand rabbis and come up with what we think are wise parables to explain away the plain and obvious atrocities in the text, but that does not erase them. The fact that so much effort is required in order to attempt to justify the capriciousness, impulsiveness, and ferocity of our "God" is proof enough that we know such efforts are necessary because we know that many things claimed in its pages are barbaric beyond modern man's comprehension.
I can never be an honest person and actually delude myself into thinking that the Creator of all the worlds favors me for something I cannot help and had no part in, nor that He disfavors someone else for the same reason.
I can honestly say that every observation of behavior that appalls me in the Frum community of Jews is the direct result of deluding oneself into thinking he/she is genetically superior to another. Any other. Yichus (the insistence that righteous ancestors impart righteousness through sperm and egg) and its fruit is the result of thinking one is superior to the non-Jew by virtue of birth. It is only an extension of it.
That is why secular Jews have accomplished so much while ultra-Orthodox Jews have accomplished so little for the betterment of universal mankind. The more "frum," the more insular and selfish one is. Why? Because the Bible justifies the dulling of good sense--and more importantly--conscience of how it might feel to be in the "out group." The more "frum," the more ignorant one is.
Who has time to study science and history when one has a schedule full of Torah and Kabbala classes, and other pursuits that serve to dull, rather than expand, one's knowledge of the readily observable?
There is no more effective way to block the process of objective reason than to recite hours of doctrinal statements every day rather than reading in a library. We created our own capricious master, enslaved ourselves, and now we insist on "praying" from a book which is only brainwashing ourselves to limit our brains to what we wish were true, not what is. What a difference religious Jews would make in the world if they got up at dawn and spent hours reading philosophy, science texts, and history instead of reciting meaningless prayers! Think how wise they would become if the minyan of ten would include women, and be spent in the study of astronomy, philosophy, history, geology, and mathematics! A few pages of Einstein, Hawking, Sagan, Voltaire, Socrates, Shakespeare, Paine...The list is endless.
We love to take credit for our genes or our religious books producing our great contributions to humanity while at the same time despising the secularism that produced such accomplishments. We too-often hate our brothers who decided to abandon an ancient religious system of rituals and absurdities for the study of what is here for us to discover if only we will activate our brains and grant our creativity to explaining the undiscovered in nature rather than acting as defense attorneys for the unjustifiable ideas our ancient ancestors had about God. We should be improving humanity through education and charity rather than lining the pockets of our lucky recipients of "yichus" with exorbitant prices for a piece of fruit and a palm frond! I'm sure God is pleased to see us waving plants around that we paid so much for while stepping over the homeless and hungry in the street on the way to synagogue!
Would we refuse to attend a close relative's wedding and cause rifts in our families for any other reason? Would we castigate a mother for the sincere belief that circumcising her son is an unnecessary and painful procedure for any other reason? Would we refuse to eat with a non-Jewish neighbor for any other reason?
As for the nation we call Israel, we must focus on preventing war. There is no peace to come from dividing one nation that is attempting to become a democracy into two theocracies. Instead, we must advocate the education of all of its citizens, the end of religious schools that teach only hatred and censor free thinking. We must find a way to secularize education so that all Israeli citizens will, in the next generation, realize that it serves all well to dwell at peace with our neighbor. We could not have an America with territories for each racial group. We are a great nation because we are learning to be one without walls and racial division.
Educating the violent Zionist and the violent Muslim, alike, is the only solution to continued bloodshed in the region. Religious fanaticism is a monstrous python in the entire Middle East, causing man to behead, explode, hang, and stone his fellow man, commit honor killings of young girls, and destroy all semblance of liberty. The only way to end it is to stop the censorship and theocratic rule that gave it birth. No Palestinian mother should have to hide her little son in a cellar to prevent him from being taken into a terrorist training camp, and no Jewish mother should be afraid to put her child on the bus and send him to school. A Constitution and a Bill of Rights would do her more service than all the worthless treaties we can write.
I realize that for most, even if one were to think honestly and objectively about these things, the implications would likely be more than he or she could stand. I describe the feelings that I, myself, have the most difficulty with as "jumping off the cliff of excuses for all my unjust actions in the name of religion, all my sense of atonement through religion, and the security of insisting that I 'know' what no man can ever know, into the unknown abyss of personal responsibility, atonement only through rectification, and the acceptance that neither I nor any human being can ever honestly say we 'know' for a fact that there is a God, what He is like, where we came from, or where we are going." No one knows such things. The immature and insecure would rather believe a childish fable than accept that we cannot know some things.
We argue that the complexity of nature is such that it must be created by a designer. Yet, if we insist on a designer of even greater intelligence, he cannot exist without a designer. If anything intelligently designed necessitates an intelligent designer, we can only follow reason to an endless chain of "designers of designers." We become like the woman in the ancient Greek legend who insisted that the world was on the back of the turtle and when asked repeatedly what was supporting the turtle, said in exasperation, "Turtles, turtles, all the way down!"
Believing that the universe is just here, eternally, without a Creator, and believing that the Creator exists and is just here, eternally, without another Creator, are equal paradoxes; equal "impossibilities" to our understanding. Neither is provable nor disprovable at this time. Yet, if we choose to believe that the vast and infinite complexity and intelligence of the universe is the result of a God's design, there is nothing more insulting we can do to Him than to write a book that depicts Him as a cruel, petty, ill-tempered, racist dictator who is also so psychopathic as to commit acts and demand impossibilities that would make Hitler and Stalin look like innocent bystanders by comparison.
The cruelest of monsters in human history have been those that murdered, tortured, and censored mankind--and then demanded one believe or love him. Even a lowly farmer knows in his heart that neither love nor belief can be compelled, that they are beyond the control of oneself. We cannot love those we do not love; we can only say we do and lie. We cannot believe something that our brain tells us is absurd or unjust; we can only lie and say we do. Just as certainly as a man could not help violating a law against blinking the eyes, even upon pain of death, man cannot help violating a law that compels him to love under threat of force. So, as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity tell us, we must either delude ourselves to the point of insanity or live our lives as lying hypocrites under pain of death.
I can believe that men wrote such books from their own hearts, experiences, and superstitions. I cannot believe that a God who could design DNA, laughter and love would be so cruel as to grant us the gift of reason and then demand--under pain of either temporal or eternal death--that we believe the absurd, exclude and injure our fellows, and waste away our years in ignorant creeds and pointless rituals rather than in eager exploration and active service.
If my honesty costs me my remaining friends, I suppose that is the price I must pay for being true to myself and refusing to violate my conscience by thinking myself chosen above the Asian, African, or any other group, and acting on that belief by spending my life immersed in selfish pretense at piousness. I can respect anyone's right to believe as they like, but not to justify his/her behavior that is the fruit of foolish superstition.
I'm currently watching the ringing of the bells and the white smoke ascending from the Vatican. A pope has been chosen, and the people of Italy are running through the streets in the hopes of making it to the site in order to learn who will be their next "Rebbe," the man who will tell them what they may and may not think and may and may not do. He can tell them that women are still inferior, that birth control and homosexuality are evil, and they will believe him. How I would love to see those throngs of people running to the university to learn to use their own minds!
I have no choice but to be true to my conscience and the brain that I was given. I have this right today to question and reason because of a great nation that was founded, not as a theocracy, but as an ingenious system in which the state is divorced from the control of any religion. Freedom is the invention of thinking men and women.
I am unceasingly thankful that I can chuckle at so-called witches and psychics without feeling the desire to murder them for primitive ignorance. I am thankful that someone can "tempt" me to worship a harmless piece of stone and I am not obligated to murder such an unreasoning fool. I am thankful that homosexuality and eating lobster are not equal "abominations"--nor abominations at all. I am free to feel pity and engage in action to fight against the cruel plague of AIDS. I am glad that I don't feel the need to kill an animal to appease my deity, nor (as a woman) to bow reverently outside a Temple that is turned by men into a slaughterhouse.
I am glad that I can shake a man's hand or hug him without rendering him "impure." I am glad I can believe that having a menstrual cycle is a blessing that gave me children, not a reason to feel shame and separate myself from my husband or partner lest I contaminate him, spiritually or otherwise, for two weeks of every four. I am free to disbelieve the lie that all Arabs are violent murderers, or that God would hate me for falling in love with a non-Jew. I am free to believe what my conscience tells me: that if there is a Creator, He would never justify slavery; polygamy; granting little girls to victorious conquerors as sexual toys to be abused and discarded; murdering witches for an impossible crime; paying a sum of money for ownership of a rape victim; shutting out the lame, blind, or otherwise handicapped; nor any of the other atrocious behaviors that for which religion dulls the conscience and magnifies unreasonable tolerance.
I can allow the natural softness of my heart to express itself in compassionate deeds without the iron yoke of prejudice that religion has fettered me with from infancy. I can write these words without fearing that I will be tortured to death for my honest convictions. My Redeemer is collective, a Savior who bought my freedom through the shedding of blood indeed. I am free to think because untold numbers of brave infidels took beatings, stonings, lynchings, torture, pyre, and prison, so that I can have the right to be who I am. They died that I might live and know about the vastness of the universe, that the earth is round, that peace is a virtue, that I am any man's equal.
Someone in the darkness of history died that I might read and write.
I can find the greatest and most-lasting joy from being an infidel who feeds the hungry, helps the needy, cares for the sick and dying, loves my neighbor, and embraces all mankind with understanding. I have no clergyman to tell me I cannot do these things--or whom I may do them for and whom I must hate.
I am not compelled to pierce my brother with the arrows of humiliation, nor raise the sword of degradation because my "inspired book" tells me I must. I have breath in my body still, in spite of rejecting the idea that the Creator would surely strike the life from it should I ever abandon the hatred, arrogance, and self-delusion that I have learned from religion.
That gives me the greatest gift I could ever receive besides the gift of life itself. I still have time. How much I don't know, but time to atone for my cruel and ignorant beliefs, the prejudices that I received in my mother's milk--and best of all, to live by my conscience and not that of another from an ancient age of primitive brutality.
I can believe myself neither superior nor inferior to anyone by unmerited means, I can feed the hungry with the monies I would have given to church, synagogue dues and ritual expenses. And the greatest joy I hope to have is to serve as a volunteer to care for AIDS victims. I can believe that no god would hate homosexuals so much as to curse the world with a disease that is wiping out mothers and infants, decimating the African continent and bringing a kind of suffering that is nearly impossible to imagine. Some clergyman cannot whisper a cruel lie in my ear. Instead, I can help alleviate that suffering with my time and money. I can fight for the rights of homosexuals to marry and receive the same benefits that once were also barred to interracial couples. I can be free to think for myself and be everything I can be. I can make it my goal to earn, through tireless efforts and compassionate tears, the gift of eternal life in the form of numberless people who will not forget my name and what I did to help others. I can be immortal if only my friends remember me as one who had the courage to question, be truthful, and walk away from all that I knew to be unjust. I can only hope to be worthy of my Blessed Redeemers, those who died that I might be free.
Only now can I truly say that I am "born again."
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